The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 9, No. 4


by Charles D'Ambrosio

Untitled Document

My wife and I had been living in our house outside Mount Vernon for about a month. In that part of Western Washington the land is alluvial and soft, and over the years the house had settled awkwardly and was so weather-beaten in places, yet so new and marvelously current in others, that it would have been hard for an outsider to guess whether it was an old house that was falling apart or a new house with many sly touches of distressed authenticity. The previous owner had been a tulip farmer with a large family and we supposed that throughout the years market fluctuations had dictated improvements—how frail and precarious the futures in tulips must have been! In some years, obviously, this family had been flush, while in other, leaner years, they'd simply made do—the house recorded and quietly testified to the course of their fortunes. Our kitchen came equipped with a dishwasher and a disposal, but the screened-in porch was rotting and lopsided, leaking not only rain but clouds of mosquitoes, one always following the other rapidly. Out back, beyond the porch, there was a fair yard, a seasonal pond choked with purple loosestrife, a gnarled gray apple tree, and a thorny brake of blackberry bushes that separated our property from the tulip fields, still farmed by the same family. The old man had simply moved to town after his wife died, perhaps feeling that an old, questionable house, without a wife or kids, was no longer worth the persistent effort it would take to restore and maintain.
     No matter—it was our dream house. Two flat strips of blacktop stretched away from it in all directions, falling off toward infinity, and we liked to imagine, in our private, silly moments alone, that the earth was our present, that the crossroads was the ribbon wrapping it, and that our house, shabby as it may have seemed, was the somewhat frilly bow atop this wonderful gift. Perhaps we'd lived as nomads in New York for too many years, and maybe the twin luxuries of space and ownership made us dizzy, but at times, during those first few weeks, we couldn't help ourselves. I'd lie awake at night and press my palms flat against the cool white spaces of the sheets and revel in the knowledge that tomorrow night I'd be able to do the exact same thing. That it wouldn't be taken away seemed a miracle. Those first giddy weeks, Meagan and I made love frequently and with renewed passion, exploring the different rooms and discovering each other at the same time, an intimacy that distance and the novel possibility of separation seemed to encourage. One night, however, just a few days after we'd celebrated our first month in the house, I woke and found myself alone—itself a rarity, after the cramped studios, the cheating one-bedrooms—and sprang up, startled and afraid. I searched the house upstairs and then down, and finally gathered the folds of my robe around my neck and went outside. The lawn glistened with mist, and a few high clouds scudded overhead in a clearing, starlit sky. I could smell the wet dark soil all around me, and I could hear something too—something faint and far away that I couldn't quite place.
     Meagan was standing out on the road. A balmy wind blew across the open fields and stirred the border of forsythia, and I watched her hand rise slowly to her face and briefly rest there. Although it made for a strange picture, seeing my wife out on the road, in her bedclothes, I wasn't alarmed. Her father and brother and her brother's wife and baby were to arrive the next day—it was her brother Jimmy's birthday—and I supposed that this visit, the first in our new house, in this new land we had decided to call home, had made Meagan both restless and thoughtful. To her the visit would in some way bestow official sanction on our choices, as a marriage is sanctioned by witnesses. This sudden convergence of her father and brother, as well as the absence of her mother, affected her outlook, I think, so that for several days, ever since the phone calls were made, the dates settled, then rearranged and settled again, she'd been seeing our house through their eyes, and suddenly everything puzzled and depressed her. It was too much house, or not enough, too new or too old, and the landscape, of rivers and mountains and muddy fields, all sealed beneath a lid of gray and black and white February clouds, was too foreign, or too monotonously familiar.
     "I just wanted to look at it," she said, when I came up beside her. "It's big, isn't it?"
     In fact, it was—far more house than we needed. There was a huge attic with a row of dormer windows, out of which no one ever looked; they were an odd decorative flourish without function. I wasn't even sure how to get up there, although I assumed some sort of hatch-and-ladder contraption existed, perhaps a boarded passage hidden away in the back of a closet. In the house proper, aside from the master bedroom, there were two others upstairs, and a third downstairs. The rooms upstairs were papered with Grecian pastoral scenes, and the downstairs room, obviously a young boy's, was done up in a western motif, with horses hitched to cacti, and men gathered around a campfire. In a fit of rebellious mischief, someone had drawn crayon stick figures along the lower reaches of the wall—ambuscading stick figures aiming bows and wearing Indian headdresses, no less. The drawings were the primitive dreams, like the ancient petroglyphs of a hungry tribe, of a boy sent to bed without his dinner. Upstairs and down, the wallpaper was old, yellowed by age and sunlight, mapped with brown water stains, and in many places it had fallen off in big clumps to reveal the soft, flaking plaster beneath it.
     "Hear that?" she asked.
     "I did before. What is it?"
     "Somebody out there is playing the piano."
     "It's beautiful."
     "It's lonely."
     To the west, across the road and below the levee, a ragged wisp of gray smoke rose in the wind. Our closest neighbor, Mr. George, lived down there in a one-room cabin along the banks of the Skagit River. The Skagit Valley is a flat stretch of fertile land that lies between the sea and the mountains, and at times, when the fog is low and rolling, or at night, in the dark, when the small, sad lights of some distant house glow like portholes, you can still imagine what it was like twenty thousand years ago—a cold, silent world buried in glacial ice, and then deep under water. At times the air is so damp and dense with fog you feel as if the waters had just yesterday receded; other times, the feeling is antediluvian and expectant, especially in late winter or early spring, when the rains fall and the Skagit floods. The winding network of levees generally holds the floodwater in check, and most houses, like ours, are protected—we carry flood insurance just in case. Yet there are remnants along the river of the days when people contended more openly with nature, and fearless or defiant men, or men who are simply too old and too poor and too proud, like Mr. George, still live in some of the ramshackle houses on the banks of the river. When the floods come, they simply take to their roofs or hop in aluminum prams, plying the oars against the current, and wait.
     When I'd first come out, I thought the sky was clearing. It wasn't. The wind had died out, and in the stillness the fog was thickening around us. My robe was damp, the flannel heavy with sea air.
     "Let's go back inside now," I said.

     Early the next morning Meagan shopped for her brother's favorite foods (he was a fussy eater), purchased three sets of new sheets, emptied our modest liquor cabinet into a mop bucket and hid it beneath the sink, and in the bedrooms set vases of fresh flowers, each with half an aspirin dissolved in the water. It didn't seem to me that family should be a source of so much anxiety, especially in our own house, and I was slightly annoyed at the elaborate, endless preparations, as Meagan ran from room to room, wiping a fingerprint from a mirror, or restacking books on a night table. Perhaps because my own father died when I was young and I, as the only child, was absorbed into a larger and more casual clan of aunts and uncles and cousins, my sense of family, and of love and loyalty, too, had always been friendly and equable rather than fierce and divided. The weight of my expectations, and therefore the burden of my disappointments, was spread evenly among many people, so that a typical Saturday in my childhood might find me baking a cake with a cousin in the morning and then drinking Roy Rogerses in a bar while my uncle shot pool until the Old Style beer sign in the window began to warm in the night air and it was time to return home for a dinner cooked by my mother.
     The sky had turned a deep, dull pewter and rain fell as I pushed the mower back and forth over the dandelions and puffballs that made up our lawn. Across the road I could hear Mr. George pounding away, the racket echoing above the river like rifle shots and then fading across the fields. With all the noise I didn't hear the car pull into the drive. Meagan and Mr. Boyd came running across the yard with sections of newspaper held over their heads. Never a thin man, Joe Boyd had gained weight without seeming any fatter, just bulkier and more imperial; he called my name in his rolling, stentorian voice as he struggled across the yard.
     "Tony, my boy!" he called, slipping.
     I offered my hand to Joe.
     "Good to see you," he said. He held my hand in his grip as he looked around. "So this is it, huh?"
     Meagan tugged my sleeve.
     "Daddy has some bags in the trunk," she said. She looked at me, and then out across the road. The rain fell in pellets that bounced and exploded over the asphalt. "God, it's raining. I wish it wasn't raining."
     "You're known for your shitty weather out here," Mr. Boyd said, "but it keeps everything green, I guess."
     Just then Jimmy's gang pulled into the gravel drive.
     "Hey, monsoon season," he said, huddling around the woman I presumed was Naga, holding a coat over her and a dark-skinned, squalling baby.
     "Jimmy, Jimmy!" Meagan screamed, hugging him, then stepping back. "Let me look," she said, then collapsed toward him again.
     Jimmy was a sweet-looking kid with reddish hair and the sort of sparse moustache I've always associated with young guys in the military—just a little disturbance above his lip. He was twenty-five, soon to be twenty-six. Joey, the baby, was wrapped in a bundle of blankets, his bawling face pinched tight. "He's hungry," Jimmy said, taking the baby from Naga. His wife was young, eighteen I guessed, though she might have been younger than that, and her skin was as smooth and brown and lustrous as a chestnut—darker than the average Filipino woman. Her hair was long and coal black. Her lips were wide and kind of flat, purplish in color, with the distant, sensual pout of a child, still in a daze, just waking from a dream. I won't try to mimic the way she spoke, but her manner was polite and formal, peppered with odd Americanisms. Throughout the visit she called me "Anthony," and when she called Mr. Boyd "Father" it sounded honorific. She didn't talk much, but she liked to say "honey" a lot, as in "Jimmy honey," or "Good morning, honey," so that I wondered if the word honey had some twittering musical similarity to a word or sound in Tagalog.
     We pushed into the entryway and I gathered an armload of wet coats.
     "Jimmy," Mr. Boyd called.
     "Joe," Jimmy said. "Dad."
     The two men shook hands and kept shaking them, like strangers with little to say, trying to remember an old connection. Everything lapsed awkwardly into silence.
     "This is Naga," I said. "Jimmy's wife."
     "And this is Joey," Jimmy said. "Joe Jr."
     I'm not sure he or anyone else caught his slip-up, and I was happy to let it ride, a nervously misplayed note at a recital. Jimmy pulled the blanket away from his son's face, and our little group huddled closer, gathering in a circle, but it was hard to adore such a disconsolate, wailing baby, and after a moment of embarrassed stammering Jimmy sent Naga off to the kitchen to warm a bottle of formula. The rest of us sat in the living room, and I thought how pleasant it was to hear other voices in the house. So far, it had been only Meagan and I and the mute voices of the past, those little evidences, like the crayon stick figures, that someone had lived here before us. I'd never owned a house and was a little mystified, surprised that anyone could manage. I tended to read these traces of the past as if they were affidavits from the previous owner, affirming, under oath, that he'd actually made it. I found myself listening to these new voices for reassurance, too; and although, at the moment, I couldn't really hear what anyone was saying, the music of conversation was more than enough: Mr. Boyd's booming bass, Meagan's rising melody, Jimmy's percussive babbling to the baby, and the din of the rain outside, thrumming against the windows. I offered to light a fire, and Meagan said that would be nice. I brought in logs from the tarp-covered rick in back of the house and chopped kindling and got a rip-roaring fire started. "How about music?" I asked. And when no one answered I put on a Brahms sonata that was a little mournful, Germanic and dirgelike. I worried that Mr. Boyd or Jimmy might find my choice pretentious, but as the first heavy strains lifted into the room, it seemed to fit the weather and the fact that I was there, in my own house, with my wife and these guests, sitting before a big fire. The flames licked up into the flue, the logs crackled, the rain fell and tapped against the roof, the cello and piano approached each other tentatively, and I felt warm and enclosed.
     "So," Joe said. "Theater arts?"
     "It's a job for now," Meagan said.
     "You still acting?" Jimmy said, chucking the baby under the chin. He said to Naga, "Meagan's an actress––or used to be, sounds like."
     "She still is," I said.
     "Those who can't do, teach," Jimmy said.
     "And those who can't teach . . ." Joe said.
     "Teach gym, ha ha," Meagan said, playing her part in the routine like a seasoned trouper.
     "That's what they say," Jimmy said.
     Meagan smiled, then frowned, then looked at her brother. "If you'd write to me every once in a while you'd know what's going on."
     "What do you teach them?" Mr. Boyd said.
     "I do write," Jimmy said. "Just I don't ever have stamps."
     "The college puts on two big productions a year," I said.
     Mr. Boyd pressed his palms together and then touched the tips of his fingers to his lips.
     "I'll send you stamps," Meagan said; and then, to her father: "Well, come on, what do you think of the house?"  
     Joe said, "Nice."
     "It's really old," Jimmy said. "Makes me want to hear a ghost story. I'm surprised a couple yuppies like yourself would buy such a beater."
     "We'll fix it up—" Meagan said.
     "It's like a pioneer house or something."
     "Good luck," Jimmy said. "I can't imagine Tony using a hammer."
     "How's the commercial and film market?" Joe asked.
     "I haven't really looked into it," Meagan said. "I'm sure it's the usual small-market stuff."
     "Auto dealers and carpet sales," Joe said, "and that kind of thing."

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