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Marshfield: A Suburban Fairy Tale, by Peggy Duffy

by Peggy Duffy

Once upon a time, and for the longest time, there was a nondescript location called Marshfield, a declining township with two intersecting roadways, a grocery store and a gas station, and a maze of bumpy dirt roads which led nowhere. Then one day Norman Blahuta arrived with a vision and an engineer and a plan to transform 170 acres of unbuildable swampland into a suburban landscape.

He drew the people from their cramped apartments in neighboring failing cities, from rundown neglected farmhouses overlooking dozens of acres that were no longer farmed, from their boxy ranch houses built in the late fifties which lined the main roads. They came after work and on weekends and watched, eyes wide with wonder, as truckload after truckload of fill was dumped into the swamp, until the concave of the land was made flat and foundation footings could be sunk into the ground.

In a matter of weeks the model was open, a four bedroom, two-and-a-half bath colonial, the interior filled with scaled-down furnishings which made the rooms appear larger than their actual measurements, not that anyone took out a ruler and measured. The women were in awe of the kitchen—the abundance of counter and cabinet space, the pristine appliances not yet coated with layers of grease and spotty fingerprints—and the idea of a separate playroom for the children's toys so that maybe, just maybe, they could have a living room fit for company. The men were hard-working, family men who prided themselves in their practicality. They deluded themselves into believing they'd held onto their reasonable natures once they'd stepped inside the front door. But it was 102 humid degrees outside and the thermostat in the model was set at 72, and it was hard for a man to remain sensible under ideal conditions like that.

Their wives took a tour of the house, led by Norman Blahuta himself. They admired the interior decorating, the newness of the wall-to-wall carpet and the freshly painted walls, each not permitting herself to spoil the picture by visualizing her own threadbare and stained couch, or Formica kitchen table with its chipped top and worn edges, occupying these rooms. The men, meanwhile, made their way to the basement. Gas was cleaner than oil, they remarked as they inspected the furnace, and they dreamed of a water heater that wouldn't require replacing anytime soon and a roof that didn't need patching next spring. Those who lived out on the main road agreed it would be nice to have a quiet yard for the kids to play in without worrying about them getting hit by a car, and those who rented found it appealing to think of being rid of the landlord and his unpredictable, escalating rent.

But mostly it was the central air that swayed them. When they climbed back up the basement stairs expecting, as they were accustomed to, a twenty degree rise in temperature, the coolness of the kitchen air was more welcome and gratifying than a cold beer, and it caught them off guard, as pleasant a surprise as their wives initiating sex would have been. They fantasized rolling over in bed late at night in the comfort of their air conditioned bedrooms, their wives not too hot or too sticky to be touched. So when Blahuta sat them down, one couple at a time, and offered a price and terms that with a bit of finagling—perhaps a second job or foregoing next year's summer vacation—they could actually afford, they signed their names on the bottom line of the contracts and left satisfied, owners of brand new, four bedroom colonials with central air on quarter acre plots.

Blahuta's crew set to work, laboring from early morning's light until long after the sun had set, pouring concrete, framing houses, installing water pipes and electrical wires in compliance with local building codes. But nothing had been built in over 40 years and those building codes were even more outdated. The inspectors were under enormous pressure from a town council grateful for the sudden growth and unexpected revenue. Overwhelmed by the speed with which the houses went up, the two inspectors were forced to carry out perfunctory inspections, approving the plumbing and electrical work, issuing in quick succession a string of final certificates of occupancy. In a master stroke of coordination, Blahuta was able to close on all 700 houses within a two week period.

It took a few more weeks for reality to sink in. When you flushed the downstairs toilet in the Walters' house, the pipes reverberated throughout the first floor, the sound visibly shaking the walls, until the faucet in the upstairs master bathroom was turned on to relieve the pressure. The Calhouns' hot and cold faucets were reversed, as were their doorknobs and electrical outlets, so that they had to close a door in order to open it and push the switches to the off position to get the lights to turn on. The O'Briens' hot water pipe leaked through their kitchen ceiling at a steady drip rate of two gallons per day and the Seymours, with their six kids, couldn't get the water in their washing machine to drain out.

Aside from the varied exteriors, brickface or stoneface or aluminum siding, these idiosyncrasies were the only features which distinguished one house from another. Although each of the owners had chosen, on paper, from four different models, they all seemed to have the same floor plan, the only variations being in the location of a doorway or a closet. And though each had selected their wall-to-wall carpets and bathroom tiles from a palette of colors, they soon discovered they all shared the exact shade of beige. At each of their walkthroughs on the day of the closing, they'd pointed out to Blahuta that beige was not their color of choice. He'd consulted the file and, shocked and apologetic, said he'd never made such a mistake before. He was horrified and, of course, would rectify the situation at once, but he was sorry to say they wouldn't be able to close for another two months. With their belongings boxed and the moving vans paid for, their leases terminated or their old houses sold, they had no choice but to accept the houses "as is."

After weeks of calls to Blahuta's office to have these problems corrected (they had each purchased his ten-year new house warranty), his voice on the answering machine was replaced with a disconnection message from the telephone company. Mr. Walters and Mr. Calhoun drove out to the far end of the development to find the trailer gone, the sole reminder of its former presence a muddy square of dirt in a small patch of grass. Further inquiry by the lawyer a number of them chipped in and hired revealed only that the enormously profitable Blahuta had declared bankruptcy before leaving town. It's presumed he's taken up residence elsewhere, living happily ever after in another nondescript location and under a new corporate name, no doubt.


Peggy Duffy's short stories and essays have appeared and are forthcoming in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Brevity, Octavo, Drexel Online Journal, So To Speak, Able Muse, Flashquake and Whole Terrain, where this story first appeared. Her fiction was recognized by the Virginia Commission for the Arts as a finalist in the 2001/2002 Individual Artist Fellowship program for literary artists. She maintains a website at www.authorsden.com/peggyduffy.

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