Finalist : Terrain.org 4th Annual Contest
Rare Offering. Paneled library, garden room, Sensational distant views, historical landscape. Gated community. Great room with stone fireplace. Traditional charm, idyllic family setting. Call Leslie for a private viewing. An exclusive property of Brancaleone Realty.
Gail Meyers contemplated the rosewood sham-book in her hand, a box made to resemble the spines of classics such as Treasure Island, Great Expectations, and Vanity Fair. It was an old ruse for hiding valuables, but its joints were loose and the laminate was buckling. Inside was the same disintegrating tangle of rubberbands that had been there since her childhood. She emptied the contents onto the cold ashes in the fireplace, then in a fit of pique, followed it with the box itself. Arching back, she massaged her spine with her knuckles and contemplated the intricate network of cracks on the ceiling. The two of them, her and the house, growing old together like some enchanted couple in a fairy tale.
She picked up her vodka and went back to marking boxes. She’d already tagged the furniture, condemning pieces to this auction house or that antique shop. The smaller objects remaining in the room looked so lonely—soon there’d be nothing but dust marks to prove they’d ever been here.
Her cell phone rang, somewhere. For a minute she thought she might have packed it, then found it on the fireplace mantel. She looked at the name. It was Leslie, her realtor, the only person she ever heard from these days.
“Hi Gail. Just checking in to make sure we’re all set for the closing Friday morning. How is the packing going?”
With the concentrated focus of someone who has had too much to drink, Gail chose a cigarette from the pack in her gray sweatpants and lit it. “It’s getting there.”
Gail’s tennis shoes squeaked on the bare wood floor as she walked to a window to let the smoke escape. The screen was heavily pocked where ivy suckers had been yanked away over the years. Keeping the ivy from devouring the house had always been a battle, but she believed that what she left clinging to the stone represented an attractive truce between nature and civilization.
“Gail, I know it’s a pain, but I’ve got a list of legalities that you and David have to take care of.”
Gail knew that meant her, alone. David had stopped taking care of legalities long ago, or they wouldn’t be in the fix they were in now. In the opening salvos of his New Honesty program, David had revealed the uncompromising state of their financial affairs. They could not divorce and keep the house at the same time. It seemed to her now that he had unconsciously run their finances into the ground so they would lose the house and allow him to escape from it.
“Shoot,” she said, as she flicked an ash into the windowsill. She’d packed up all the ashtrays. She didn’t even smoke. She’d given it up years ago, but last week she decided she needed something to call her own.
Leslie’s voice droned on about getting this notarized and that signed, while Gail “mmm’d” and “uh-huhed,” mindlessly staring out beyond the unmowed lawn where the narrow road filled with mist as the day cooled. From a walled garden across the street she heard crickets calling, and from behind another brick facade came the sound of a tennis ball thumping lethargically on clay.
With the phone clutched under her jaw and the cigarette lodged between two fingers she reached up and unhooked one of the curtain rods, letting the brittle fabric slide off its rod and onto her bare arm. She flipped it around her neck and over her shoulder like a toga, being careful not to knock the ash off her cigarette.
“What?” Gail said, almost dropping the phone as she put it back to her ear.
“I said go back to work,” said Leslie. “I’ll see you Friday morning.”
Gail clicked off as she crushed the cigarette out on the sill. Leslie certainly worked hard for her money. In Gail’s opinion, this was the most interesting and charming house in Oak Hollow, but it hadn’t been an easy sell and she hadn’t gotten nearly as much for it as she had hoped. It was a rambling stone and shingle affair that had been remodeled and added to over three generations until it fit her family like a shell. The one real thing she had in her life was this house, the one thing to which all other parts of her life had been sacrificed, and she’d lost it.
She wrapped the curtain closer to her body—a lovely, sun-damaged brown velvet, with a print of pagodas and coolies pulling rickshaws, which had hung in this room since before she was born. She wandered back to the fireplace where a couple of coals had begun to smoke, and used a tarnished poker to move them closer to the sham-box. She’d made a large fire the night before, but no matter how much wood she added, she just couldn’t get warm, so she’d started throwing in packets of letters, framed photographs, stacks of bank statements—anything that documented the past.
After arranging the smoking coals just so, she tossed the metallic nugget of a cell phone on the pile, which promptly extinguished all hope of a fire. She did not want to talk to anyone, anymore. It had taken so many words to untangle the elaborate lie that was their life, she was tired of them. How odd that in the end she was the one who held onto the marriage with such tenacity. After Charlotte was born, she’d come home from an extended stay with her mother to find a man in bed with her husband. At first they tried to convince her that they’d just shared a prostitute, as if that would be all right. But then when the truth came out she wanted the lie back again. She thought her life had ended. But David didn’t want to leave, and after the shock and tears wore off, neither did she. When all was said and done, she loved him. And he loved her, though not in the way she’d once imagined. At any rate, they needed stability for their daughter, and his button-down law firm demanded a traditional home life. In the end, she opted to maintain the social fabric. So he had his men, she had hers, and they joined happily together to perform the public duties of a couple. She thought this ordered world of theirs could go on forever.
When David wanted to talk she was completely unprepared. Her family was no stranger to divorce—on her father’s side, there were handwritten divorce documents from the 17th century—but hers was a double failure. She couldn’t even keep a fake marriage together.
“It was a real marriage,” David had once said, before he left altogether. “It was just different, that’s all. It worked while it worked.”
“It could still work,” she pleaded. “Why do you have to choose? You’ve had everything.”
He took both her hands in his. “No,” he said gently. “I’ve had bits of both, but nothing of whole cloth. And neither have you.”
She yanked her hands away. He’d become so calm, so knowing, he seemed ready to sprout wings and float away, which only served to fan her anger.
The heavy thunk of the brass dolphin hitting the front door startled her back to the present, and she made a mental note to tell Leslie she intended to take the knocker with her. She loved the patina, which new brass would take years to acquire. She looked out the window and sighed. It was David’s car, but only Tinker had come. Short, red-faced and ill-tempered, Tinker was a bully, just like the ones who had beat him up in high school. Tit for tat. But he was supposedly a brilliant mathematician, and David was always a sucker for genius.
She adjusted the curtain on her shoulder and snatched the door open.
“Gail,” he said with disgust in his voice. “I tried calling, over and over. I’m setting up the living room and I need the rug now. We just can’t move forward without it.” He clenched his fists as he spoke, but his voice trailed off as he finally looked straight at Gail. She put her hand on her hip to show off the curtain to best advantage.
“Hello, Tinker,” she said, glad to see he’d gained a great deal of weight since the last time she’d seen him.
Tinker twisted his mouth into a smile. “There’s not many women can carry off a look like that.”
“Thank you, you’re so kind.” She turned back to the living room, and after a pause, he followed. She could feel the heat of his rage fill up the room as they entered it, and that made her very happy. She arranged herself at the sofa, letting her arm rest along the arc, and picked up her vodka off the floor without offering him a drink.
Tinker remained standing. “Where is the rug, Gail? I have to go.”
“Why didn’t David come for it?”
Tinker exhaled with great impatience. “He’s at yoga, and I need the rug now or I won’t get the furniture arranged in time for brunch on Sunday.”
After he’d left home, David had taken up yoga with a religious fervor, twisting his body into knots for up to two hours a day. For all his talk about “letting go,” she couldn’t help but feel he was desperate to gain control, even if it was only over his own body. “Have a seat, Tinker.” She motioned towards a spiral-legged chair, spilling some vodka.
“Aren’t you going to wipe that up?” he asked.
“Buckets of liquor have been spilled on this floor,” Gail mused. “When I think of all the parties in this room ….”
She breathed in the smell of leather and charred logs. She wanted to breathe in the room itself and carry it around with her, the broad window seats, the heavy beams above, the carved birds in the molding and the rough-plastered walls. The interior balcony looked straight out of a stage set for Romeo and Juliet, where she and David used to sneak off from parties to look down at it all. It was a room crafted to accommodate the good life. Where had it gone?
Tinker fidgeted. “Is the rug still in the dining room, Gail?”
She gazed at her glass. “Do you know that the fumed oak panels in the library were taken from a choir stall in bombed-out France after World War I?” She stood up and walked to the other end of the room, ever so slightly off kilter. “The stones for this mantel were hand-picked by my great-grandmother. Mule carts arrived from all over the county with rocks for her to choose from. She was a very particular woman.” She stood near the fireplace, holding the glass in one hand and patting a closet door with the other. “If you look closely, Tinker, you’ll notice that the door on the other side is a dummy to balance this one.”
Tinker’s face briefly went blank before it turned an interesting shade of red. “You might have had a lot of parties in this great room of yours, Gail, but the biggest room in this house is the one for improvement.” And then he turned and left to go find his rug.
Gail stood for a moment smiling to herself. He’d missed her point entirely. She was the one who’d been the dummy. She downed the last of the vodka as the sun dropped closer to the horizon, casting an Old Masters light throughout the room. She looked up at the mirror. Half of her face was thrown into darkness but the light softened her features on the remaining side. With good lighting and a little luck, she might not have to be alone the rest of her life. The sham-box in the cinders finally caught fire, and with an electronic hiss, the phone was soon engulfed in a small blaze. She tossed her glass in the fireplace, breaking it against the cast iron fireboard, and the dregs of vodka briefly intensified the flames.
She adjusted her curtain and walked unevenly to the dining room where Tinker was struggling to get the rolled and bound rug to his shoulder.
“I don’t even know why David wants this thing,” he said. “The colors are so dull. I think it’s off center too.”
“That’s done on purpose,” said Gail, leaning against the doorway. “The Persians believed that only God should be perfect,”
“Whatever.” Tinker bent from his knees to get a handle on the rug. “With the new puppy, we don’t want something really good on the floor anyway.”
She looked down at her sneakers. She’d never had to deal with David’s boyfriends before, as they weren’t supposed to even exist. Life was so much easier when it wasn’t all that real. “You’re not going to be able to carry that rug by yourself,” she said at last. “And it’s not going to fit in that car.”
“I can and it will. The cargo compartment opens into the back seat. It’s only going to hang out a bit.”
With renewed fervor, Tinker began to struggle with the rug, dragging it through the hall and bumping into the hunting prints still hanging on the wall. Gail moved past him to the front door to hold it open, and as she waited, she watched an older man carefully jog down the street, advertising his aging virility. He was a widower, new to the neighborhood. Gail motioned hello and he waved back with a lewd little smile. He might have stopped, but just at that moment, Tinker appeared with his rug, and she had to stop him from dragging it down the flagstone path.
“Here, let me grab this end,” she said, and he did not argue. They awkwardly carried it to the green Saab in the driveway. Her curtain kept slipping off her shoulder, so that it fell over her forearm as if she were a waiter.
“The neighbors are going to think we’re smuggling out David’s body,” Gail said, with a tipsy laugh, holding the rug upright while Tinker opened the luggage compartment.
“I guess they know you well enough,” he said, without a hint of humor. He maneuvered an end of the rug into the compartment pass-through and continued to push until the bottom third was in the back seat. As he’d predicted, the other end hung only a little bit out the back, but the hood would still have to be tied down for the bumpy ride into the city.
“Thanks,” Tinker said, wiping his hands on his khakis. “You can go. I just have to get the rope in the front seat.”
“I’ll wait. You might need more help.”
The air was getting cool, and she mourned the summer. It was always over before the calendar officially declared it dead. She reached for the curtain to pull over her shoulders, but it was no longer on her arm.
“Damn,” she said, when she saw that it had slipped off and gotten trapped under the rug. “We’ve got to lift it out again.”
Tinker was rummaging around in the front seat. “You lift it.”
She reached into her sweatpants and pulled out her pack, slightly crushed from all her exertions. She found a cigarette that was not bent and lit it as she contemplated the curtain, half under the rug, half hanging out over the edge of the trunk. With one hand, she lifted the rug a couple of inches, and with the other, still holding her cigarette, she tugged gently at the curtain, but soon stopped, afraid of ripping the fragile fabric. She would have to wait for Tinker, who was on the other side of the car making a career out of organizing his little piece of rope. She turned to admire the late-season roses by the driveway—rare, dark-throated beauties. She put the cigarette to her lips, but the ember had fallen off. She stared at the cold tip, depressed that she wouldn’t even be able to kill herself with cancer at this rate.
“Gail!” Tinker screamed.
Flames leaped out of the trunk. Gail was so startled she just stood and watched as Tinker reached in and tried to yank out the rug, which was smoking but not yet burning, but he had done such a good job getting it in, he couldn’t get it out. Before the curtain became completely engulfed with flames, he ripped it away from the rug, leaving one half still stuck in the trunk and the other burning in his hands. He tossed it from him, towards Gail and she screamed and kicked it away, under the Saab.
“A phone!” Tinker jumped back and frantically started patting himself.
Gail got down on her knees to grab the burning curtain under the car, but there was nothing but flames to get a hold of.
Tinker was digging for his phone in the front seat, but the car was filling with black smoke from the luggage compartment. “Call the fire department,” he coughed.
Gail looked up at the house and regarded the fumes of her cell phone drifting from the chimney. The land line was already disconnected. “Tinker, you get the hose by the greenhouse, I’ll go call from the neighbors.”
She watched Tinker disappear around the house. He might be able to find it, but it would never reach the car. Not by a long shot. The air around them grew dark as the rug began to really spew out smoke. It would not be long before the whole mess went up in flames. Tinker would never have the apartment ready for brunch on Sunday now. She supposed it was as much her fault as anyone’s and she would have to take some of the blame. But not all of it. “I’d best be going,” she said out loud to no one, and trotted up the driveway, stopping at the road. Instead of turning right to the closest house, she decided this was the perfect opportunity to introduce herself to the new neighbor. Maybe he was just getting out of the shower from his jog. In the name of expediency she did not go around to the formal entry, but scaled the crumbling wall of his back garden, pulling herself up on the thick ropes of ivy. She would have to warn him about these suckering vines. It was a delicate balance, keeping enough to cover an old ruin without bringing it down altogether.