Fiction

House Hunting

By Brigitte Whiting

Saturday mornings, Eve and Jim shopped for houses. They’d driven since early morning following the map she’d marked with sticky tabs. Each had been a no, again. Some were too perfect, uninviting. Others, plain, functional as they were, and seeming to say, I don’t need anyone. She pulled each taboff the map and scrunched itinto a ball.

“Really, Eve, will thisever work?” Jim asked.

She’d never admit she was as discouraged as he was, or how the bright sunshine couldn’t dispel her fears that they’d never find the perfect house before the baby came.

“I don’t know, but I have to do something.” She pointed to the right, and he drove slowly past carbon copy bungalows, each with a trimmed lawn and the lone Japanese maple tree.

She folded her map and slipped it between the seat and the console. “I wish we could find a house that needed me.” She nodded and pulled in a long breath to settle herself. “Needed us.”

“Home?” Jim asked

“Not yet. Sometimes I wish we could just keep going.”

He pulled down his visor, glanced toward her. “Take a ride?”

She laughed. His usual solution was to drive somewhere, ever as hopeful as she was that something would turn up along the way. “Okay.”

Springtime in Maine was her favorite season. She leaned back in her seat and gazed out the window. Pale-green oak and beech leaves unfurled; purple rhododendrons bloomed wildly, freed from the invisible grip that held her. She squeezed her eyes shut.

Jim touched her arm. “Don’t worry, Eve. It’s not the same at all this time. This baby will be okay.” He looked at her and then turned back to focus straight ahead. “We’ve got five months before the baby’s due. We’ll find something long before then.”

For her. She hadn’t wanted to know this time so she never said “her” out loud, and she didn’t let herself imagine her. This time, she knew what could happen, and this time, she’d protect that baby.

Jim speeded the car up. They talked about the houses they passed, and she mused aloud about clouds and distances, and how she’d always wanted to live in a house where she could see the horizon, and he talked about them living in one of the tidy houses in town where their child could play with the neighborhood kids and walk to school. She partly agreed with him. Maybe it made sense to be practical.

“What’s on your mind?” He steered with one hand and rested his other hand on her shoulder.

“Too much,” she said. “You and me. We’re so different, aren’t we?”

“I guess so.” He coughed a little. “But that’s good.”

“You don’t like this, do you, this hunting for a house?” She glanced at him. His jaw was set so subtly that only she would recognize his irritation mixed with fear.

“I don’t want us to make a mistake.”

She closed her eyes and breathed in slowly to slow her thoughts down. “Sometimes I’m ready to give in and buy a tract house. But then I think of how I want to be settled, to put down deep roots, to build a family.”

“I want what you want, Eve. We both want the same thing. It’s just that … sometimes it makes me uneasy that we’re in such a hurry.”

“We wouldn’t be,” she said. “Except for the baby, I wouldn’t …”

She turned her thoughts to the maples with their brushy, brown blossoms. A brilliant yellow forsythia bloomed where a farmhouse must have stood long ago. Then she caught sight of a rough wooden sign. “Slow down, Jim,” she said. She read it aloud. “House for Sale. $45,000.” A rutted dirt driveway curved up a hill, tufts of grass and dandelions in scratches along its edges, “Do you see the house?”

“The price isn’t believable. Unless…” Jim said.

Their Ford Focus rocked its way up the road to the front steps. She peered up at an ancient farmhouse settled like an immense golden eagle on its nest, the vast open sky flecked with cumulus clouds around it.

“Oh Jim. I’ve always wanted a place like this.”

The house had been painted buttercup yellow with misty-green shutters and pink windowsills long ago, the bits of pigments still clinging to the weathered boards. The covered porch slouched. Jim stopped the car, and Eve slid out and walked slowly along a slate pathway to the unpainted steps. A frayed rope swing, with a tire for a seat, hung from a gnarled apple branch. Beneath it, the dirt was pounded so hard that nothing but wisps of grass grew. If she shut her eyes, she thought she might hear the children laughing.

A breeze rustled through the dry leaves. Birds sang everywhere. Each blade of grass seemed to sigh with contentment. The house was taller than she’d thought at first, three stories. The windows on the first two floors had shutters. Someone had loved this house. She could love this house.

Jim walked up and stood behind her. “Needs a lot of work.”

She turned around, looked into his blue eyes, then past his face to the horizon. From here, she could see the Presidential Range. “It’s … I can’t even find words … wonderful. The view.”

“Hey, let’s look inside first before we decide anything.”

She strolled away from him to the front of the house. Along its foundation, daffodils and pansies bloomed. Two rose bushes swathed with bits of new leaves clung to an arbor. “Perfect,” she said. “Someone made it perfect.” Leggy lilac bushes sprawled at both corners.

He’d followed her and she became aware that he was standing next to her. “It’s beautiful, don’t you think, Jim? It’ll be perfect for us, for the baby.”

“The yard needs work. Lot of grass to mow.” His voice drifted off as he walked up the steps. Halfway up, he stopped, stomped a board back into place with his heel. “Watch your step, Evie.” He stood in front of the rusted screen door and pushed the doorbell. “I don’t think anyone could live here.”

Eve stood on the landing, thinking how she’d repaint the ancient Adirondack chairs. They’d be perfect for sitting here, sipping iced tea, and listening to the birds, to their daughter laughing. It felt like home.

“Dreamy, Eve? We haven’t even seen the place yet and you’re acting like it’s ours. If it’s like this inside, well …”

“Knock, Jim.”

He rapped hard and called through the door about the sign. Eve sat in one of the chairs on its hard, flat cushion. The early morning coolness had given way to a gentle warm breeze wafting over her. She halfway watched Jim open the door, step inside, and she waited for him to return to get her, but before he could, an old stooped woman in a long gingham dress and a matching bonnet crept up the steps.

“You saw my sign?” she asked.

Eve nodded.

“Well, come on in. Let’s take a look.”

Eve followed her. Torn organdy curtains hung over the windows in the front parlor. The wallpapered walls were yellowed, the pine floor so aged it was almost black. A rusted bedstead with a worn patchwork quilt stood in the center of the room. She’d open the windows, strip the walls, and paint them pale ivory.

Through a doorway, a green cast iron woodstove seemed to take up most of the kitchen, but when she walked in, she saw that it was spacious and sunny room, lacy curtains swaying in an open window. Open pine shelves were hung on the four walls. A hand pump leaned over the slate sink. An old refrigerator stood in the corner, its paint worn off and rusted through. The stove was warm and smelled faintly of wood smoke. A shiny cast iron griddle sat on a front burner. She’d keep the wood stove and bring in new appliances, an electric range and a large refrigerator so the kitchen would be workable. After that, they could renovate the room in phases.

“Lived here for fifty years,” the woman said to Jim. “My kids want me to move to town. Don’t feel I’m safe here. I am though.”

Eve smiled to herself. In fifty years, her own children would be grown, and coming back home for holidays, for weeks during summers. She’d never want to leave this house either.

Jim nudged her elbow and she jumped. “Since we’re here, let’s check out the rest,” he whispered. He pointed toward the staircase. “Okay to go upstairs?”

The woman set herself down hard in a cushioned rocker near the stove. “Make yourself at home.”

They climbed the worn stairs to the second story. Eve fingered the torn wallpaper, ran her hands over the splotchy varnish on the doorframes and along the carved moldings. Jim’s shoes left footprints in a thin layer of dust on the steps and the wood floors. The doors to the three bedrooms leaned open. One room was strewn with papers and clothing, as if the old woman had rustled through everything for memories that had been left behind, and then left it so none could be disturbed.

“You don’t have to guard it like it’s a big secret, Jim. I know it’s a dump. But …” She inched her way through the piles of clothes and toys to reach a window. Any sunshine that might have come in was blocked by the dirty glass. An overgrown pine grove allowed little more than glimpses of a long grassy slope down to the river.

“But what?” He kicked aside a stack of faded towels. “How can anyone live in such a mess?”

Eve stepped back from the window and snatched a towel, folded it, and placed it on the bare single-sized mattress. It was the palest pink, for a little girl who had worn it thin, but her mother had kept it. Then she picked up an old school notebook, its pages tattered, and opened it to the first page. A child had printed her name in crooked letters: Mollie. She turned the page to read it. “My baby brother died. Mother says we mustn’t cry. I can’t help it. I don’t want her to know so I cry in bed.” She closed the booklet and set it on the bed. She hadn’t noticed before that the piles were organized, towels, toys, bedding, clothing. And photographs. She picked up a black-and-white one with torn edges. A little boy and an older girl. The reverse of what they would have had. She’d never had an older sibling and envied her friends who did. She would have loved having someone guide her. There were more photographs and albums. She slid a stack of pictures aside and reached for the top album. Blue. It would be of the boy, she guessed, and opened it, and looked at the first pages. The woman, when she was young, stylish with her hair rolled up and pinned into place, a few tendrils around her cheeks, and her husband wearing a dark suit and tie. She looked closer at his hands, a working man’s hands, his faced tanned and lined, prematurely aged. Neither was smiling. Both staring straight ahead, as if right then there was nothing more to say, nothing that could be said at the funeral for the boy, and Eve drew in a quick breath. Then she snapped the cover shut and dropped the album back on the pile. She paused for a moment and chided herself for imagining someone else’s life.

“Maybe she’s crazy and the price isn’t real,” Jim whispered to her. “Or she knows how much it’s going to take to make it livable. There’s not even a bathroom upstairs.”

She needed to pull her thoughts back, to why they were in this room. She looked around it, at the faded pink wallpaper, and what was left of the lacy curtains. The room didn’t have a closet but there was enough room for one. It would be the perfect room for their little girl.

“We don’t need it all yet, Jim. Just enough room for the three of us. We can put our bed downstairs. Work on the house a little bit at a time.” She leaned against a doorframe. “She’s living here so it proves we can too.”

“I don’t know that I’m willing to spend every Saturday for the next dozen years cleaning out this place.” He kicked a torn teddy bear out of his way. “There must be access to an attic somewhere.” He opened and slammed doors shut. “Found it. In a closet.” He climbed up and back down. “You can see the river from up there.”

She picked the toy bear up and held its torn arms in place. This was silly, feeling like she needed to fix things. There was a pile of dolls, some so old their facial features were worn off, their hair in tangles. Then she noticed a bride doll still in its box, its white dress and veil yellowed. Someone’s keepsake. She set the box on the mattress. This wasn’t her stuff and she didn’t want it. When this was their place, it would be different, tidy and welcoming. She couldn’t carry the weights of someone else’s memories. Her own were heavy enough.

Eve walked to the landing to wait for Jim. “This is what I’ve always wanted, an old farmhouse, a Folk Victorian even, something we can make into ours.”

“Why, Eve? Why now?” He stepped down onto the top step and turned around. “Why can’t you be happy with an ordinary little house that doesn’t need any work? That we could move into with plenty of time to spare until …”

“Jim? I’m fine, Jim. Everything’s fine with the baby.”

But he scampered down the stairs and waited for her on the bottom landing. “We’ll talk later in the car,” he whispered.

She knew his face said don’t argue with him now, come to your senses, and she said nothing. How could she put into words what her heart said, that this house needed her to repair it, to bring it back to life.

The woman still sat in the kitchen, rocking her chair slowly back and forth, her worn hands folded in her lap.

“Where’s the bathroom?” Jim asked. She lifted one hand to gesture the direction and he disappeared behind the stove, the door groaning when he pushed on it. “Primitive,” he said, too loudly.

Eve pulled out a spindle chair and sat at the table. The woman nodded, her expression expectant, then turned her face toward the stove.

“How many children do you have?” Eve asked.

“Five. Two buried out there.” She pointed to the back yard. “Times aren’t as hard now.”

“No, they are when …” Eve said, and she decided against saying they’d lost their baby boy. She touched her tummy to reassure herself that this time, everything would be okay. And this time, they’d have a real home to bring a baby home to, not the small apartment that was up two flights of stairs.

Jim stepped back into the kitchen, glared at her, and motioned for her to come. She shook her head, and he walked out the front screen door, letting it shut by itself with a loud click.

The woman continued speaking in her raspy voice. “The house was real pretty once upon a time, but it’s hard keeping it up alone.”

“Did you ever get lonely? So far out of town?” Eve asked.

The woman didn’t stop rocking, just nodded her head to the same even rhythm, and rolled her lips over her teeth. “Can’t say as I do. Lots to do. May be old-fashioned to burn wood but good for the soul, keeps me moving.”

“You said your children want you to move?”

“Yup.”

“Forty-five thousand?”

“Yup.”

Eve waited for the woman to say something further but the silence became heavier and she stood up. “Well, I haven’t seen the backyard yet. I’m sure it’s lovely.”

The path in back of the house sloped down toward the amber river. Sunshine broke through the evergreen branches and flecked the way with patches of light. Once, flagstones had been set in place but some had cracked and others heaved up out of the dirt, and she had to watch where she stepped. They would trip a child so they’d need to reset them. Any grass that might have been planted was replaced by mosses and wildflowers, violets and bluets in the shaded areas, trilliums and star flowers in deeper shade.

Farther down, the trail forked, one way continuing to the river, the other, she assumed, to the gravesites. She paused to look back at the house. It loomed on the hilltop, its architectural lines awkward, as if when it was first built it hadn’t been done quite right and each addition was meant to prop the previous ones up. The first-floor windows hid behind overgrown shrubs, scraggly lilacs, and a single azalea with its gaudy purple blossoms. On the second floor, the windowpanes were dark, the frames little more than wood to hold them in place. The single attic window had slipped from its spot and seemed about ready to fall. Above that, the eaves sagged, some of their boards split, and along the top ridge, the shingles were thin lacy fingers holding the weather out. The house needed more work than she’d realized, but she wasn’t ready to give up yet.

She continued walking toward the river. She didn’t see Jim, and for a moment, she was afraid he’d left her to find her own way back to the car, but then she saw him almost hidden in the shadows among the trees.

She heard cracking and groaning behind her, and she looked back. The loose window slid and plummeted slowly downward. She bolted away, afraid it was falling her way, tripped on a slab, and fell forward hard. She pushed herself up, but she was dizzy and sat down. The window landed with a thud in the azalea bush, and a chunk of glass crashed ten feet from her. She was shaking and called out for Jim, her voice sounding hollow. She didn’t dare try to stand up. Her chin hurt and when she lifted her hands to touch it, she noticed her palms were bleeding. She stared at them, feeling alone, and terrified that more of the house would fall around her, like an immense eagle nest falling apart, one stick at a time. This was where her stubbornness always drove her, to see herself for who she was, so unsure of what to do that she’d grab onto anything she thought she could fix, anything to assure her that this baby would be born alive. Now, all she wanted to do now was go home where they were safe.

Her stomach tightened into a knot and she gasped. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself down, and willed the baby to be okay. All she’d done was trip, and she was reacting as if she’d fallen and broken like the window. It had crashed. She hadn’t.

She looked toward the river, but there were so many trees she couldn’t see where Jim was. She sniffed and willed herself to not cry, but her tears flowed anyway, and her thoughts tumbled over themselves into a jumble of regrets and memories. She rubbed her hands across her face.

Then Jim was beside her, out of breath, and she wondered how long she’d been sitting there.

“I saw what happened,” he said. “You’re bleeding. Where do you hurt?”

She held out her hands, and he looked at them. “By the glass?”

She shook her head and pointed over to where the glass had cracked on the grass. “I tripped and tried to catch myself.”

“You’re sure you feel okay?”

She nodded. “A little shaky.” She swiped at her cheeks. “I’m sorry for …”

He stooped down by her, pulling her close, rocking her and holding her, whispering she didn’t need to apologize.

“But I need to. I wanted so badly for this house to feel like it could be home.” She pulled in a couple of long breaths.

Jim helped her to her feet, and they walked back up the path hand-in-hand, him steadying her when she tripped over the stones.

She looked up toward the house. Clouds had piled into the sky, and the house stood in the shadows. “I’m done with looking.”

“Till next weekend,” Jim said.

She laughed, and then tears burst into her eyes. “It feels like one more loss.” She gripped his hand harder, holding onto him through all that would come.

Categories: Fiction

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